Outsiders Within Our Own Minds

How good are you at introspection? How much do you know about yourself and how much do other people know about you that you don’t actually know? I try to ask myself these types of questions and reflect on how much I don’t actually recognize or know about myself, but it is really difficult. I much prefer to look at what I do with the most generous interpretation of myself and my actions and decisions, but I know that somewhere out there someplace is someone who looks at me with the least generous interpretations of me and my actions, in much the same way I look at a person smoking or a person with a political bumper sticker that I dislike and instantly want to ascribe a whole set of negative qualities to them. Beyond simply the idea of looking at ourselves honestly, looking at ourselves from the least favorable position is extremely uncomfortable, and reveals a bunch of things about who we are that we would rather ignore.

 

Luckily for us, our brains protect us from this discomfort by simply failing to be aware of our true actions and motives in any given point in time. The brain ascribes high-minded reasons for our behaviors, and hands us a script with the best interpretation of what we do. When it comes to the brain, we feel like we know what is going on within it, but the reality is that our own minds are mysteries to ourselves.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about this in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “In other words, even we don’t have particularly privileged access to the information and decision-making that goes on inside our minds. We think we’re pretty good at introspection, but that’s largely an illusion. In a way we’re almost like outsiders within our own minds.”

 

We tell ourselves that what we do makes sense, is logical, and is the best possible outcome for everyone in a given situation. The reality is that we are likely more focused on our own gain than anything else. We don’t want to admit this to anyone (even ourselves) and so we sugar coat it and hide  our motivations behind altruistic reasons. Piercing through this with self-reflection is challenging because we are so good at deflecting and deceiving our own thought processes. It is comforting to believe that we are on the right side of a moral issue (especially if we get benefits from the side we are on) and uncomfortable with no clear path forward if we look inward and discover that we may have been wrong the whole time (especially if it seems that our social group has been wrong the whole time). Increasingly in my life I find it imperative that I consider that my brain doesn’t see things clearly and that my brain is likely wrong and short sighted about many issues. Remembering this helps me avoid becoming too certain of my beliefs, and keeps me open to the ways that other people see the world. It helps me recognize when people are acting out of their own self-interest, and helps me pull back in situations where my ego wants to run wild and declare that I am clearly right and those other people are obviously violating good moral ethics.

Sabotage Information

“Our minds are built to sabotage information in order to come out ahead in social games.” In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act out of our own self-interest without acknowledging it. We are more selfish, more deceptive, and less altruistic than we would like to admit, even to ourselves. To keep us feeling good about what we do, and to make it easier to put on a benevolent face, our brains seem to deliberately distort information to make us look like we are honest, open, and acting with the best of intentions for everyone.

 

“When big parts of our minds are unaware of how we try to violate social norms, it’s more difficult for others to detect and prosecute those violations. This also makes it harder for us to calculate optimal behaviors, but overall, the trade-off is worth it.” As someone who thinks critically about Stoicism and believes that self-reflection and awareness are keys to success and happiness, this is hard to take in. It suggests that self-awareness is a bigger burden for social success than blissful unawareness. Being deluded about our actions and behaviors, Simler and Hanson suggest, helps us be better political animals and helps us climb the social hierarchy to attain a better mate, more status, and more allies. Self-awareness, their idea suggests, makes us more aware of the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do, and why we do it, and makes it harder for us to lie and get ahead.

 

“Of all the things we might be self-deceived about, the most important are our own motives.” Ultimately, however, I think we will be better off if we can understand why we, and everyone else, believe the things we do and behave the way we do. Turning inward and recognizing how often we hide our motives and deceive ourselves and others about our actions can help us overcome bias. We can start to be more intentional about our decisions and think more critically about what we want to work toward. We don’t have to hate humanity because we lie and hide parts of ourselves from even ourselves, but we can better move through the world if we actually know what is going on. Before we become angry over a news story, before we shell out thousands of dollars for new toys, and before we make overt displays of charity, we can ask ourselves if we are doing something for legitimate reasons, or just to deceive others and appear to be someone who cares deeply about an issue or item. Slowly, we can counteract the negative externalities associated with the brain’s faulty perceptions, and we can at least make our corner of the world a little better.

Deception is Expected

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler consider it normal and expected that humans are deceptive creatures. We evolved, according to the authors, to be deceptive so that we could get a little bit more for ourselves and have a slightly better chance of reproducing and keeping our genes in the mix. We don’t boldly take things and openly cheat to get what we want (most of the time), but instead we do our best to be a team player, with some marginal cheating and stealing under the table. As they put it,

 

“Deception is simply part of human nature–a fact that makes perfect sense in light of the competitive (selfish) logic of evolution. Deception allows us to reap certain benefits without paying the full costs. And yes, all societies have norms against lying, but that just means we have to work a little harder not to get caught. Instead of telling bald-faced lies, maybe we spin or cherry-pick the truth.”

 

This leaves us in an interesting position as we think about how we should act at an individual level and how societies should organize themselves at a larger level. We want to have norms in place that deter cheating and lying to help protect people’s property, to prevent fraud, and to create a system where people can meaningfully engage with one another and trust their institutions. But at the same time, we recognize that there is going to be a substantial amount of deception and a natural urge to be deceptive in order to obtain a little more benefit with a little less cost. Individuals will behave this way, and so will the families, social groups, communities, states, and nations that individuals create.

 

A solution that I would explore would be to accept Simler and Hanson’s views openly, and then begin looking closely at externalities. Externalities (usually discussed in the negative sense) are the additional things that stem from the original action. Deceptive behavior can have negative externalities, such as wastes of money when we buy sports cars to show off rather than using our money for more productive and charitable uses. At the same time, deceptive behavior can have positive externalities, such as the benefits of charity when we donate large amounts of money, again to show off.

 

If we accept this is happening, then in our own lives and in our societies we can try to add additional costs (such as taxes) on deceptive behaviors with negative externalities, and we can do more to encourage deceptive behaviors that produce largely positive externalities. We don’t have to abandon our human nature, but we can collectively decide to shape the consequences we might face for being deceptive in certain situations. This can help bring our behaviors and actions in line with the outcomes we want, but it does require that we accept what is taking place inside our brains and accept that we are not always as wonderful as we would like to appear.

Being the Real You in a Relationship

Sometimes it is hard to be true, honest, and authentic in a relationship. While it is natural and normal to react differently to different people with different energy, enthusiasm, and activity levels, it is not natural to constantly be adopting a new personality whenever you are around another person. Author Colin Wright focuses on this in the context of romantic relationships, but his advice can spread across any type of relationship. He describes the importance of having space, accepting silence, and developing privacy in a relationship, and about the three he writes, “In aggregate, the three concepts that make up the Space, Silence, Privacy Policy allow people in a relationship to demonstrate trust, have lives outside the partnership, and be comfortable with their partner, without feeling the need to put on a show every moment of every day.”

I like Wright’s quote because it speaks about the importance of being oneself in a relationship. He shows that the base of an authentic relationship is a mixture of togetherness, trust, and independence, which allow each person to be unique and individual. When we can live authentically in a relationship, we can put our true selves forward and trust that we will be accepted.

If we fail to build the foundation Wright describes, then it is like we are never truly in a relationship at all. If our relationship is based on expected actions and behaviors, rather than trust and respect, then we will have to always live up to a standard and expectation that may be separate from who we truly are. In a romantic relationship this could mean hiding our true feelings and always going along with the other person’s ideas, and in a business relationship this could be holding back true feelings to simply agree with anything a partner does. In both situations, rather than being open and honest, we are denying part of ourselves in an act meant to please someone else.

The Consequence of Doing Wrong

Looking at good and bad actions in terms of self-reflection, Marcus Aurelius in his book Meditations provides us with a clear view of the good and bad acts that we do.  “He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly himself, because he makes himself bad.” In this simple quote Aurelius gives us a powerful reason not to do bad acts, and he reminds us why we must build honest self-reflection and practices of self-awareness in our lives.

When we do not take the time to honestly assess ourselves and evaluate our lives we allow ourselves to live in a world where we see ourselves as always correct and always acting in the most logical of ways. If we do reflect on how we behave and the decisions we make, it often does not take long to peel back the gilded surface and recognize our flaws.  We may tell ourselves that we are always nice people who treat others with respect and give them the benefit of the doubt, but just under our surface we may see that we yell at people on the highway, tailgate, or have particular driving habits that are meant to simply annoy someone around us.  A small dose of honest self-reflection can help us see these areas where our behaviors do not align with our self-talk and our beliefs about the people we are.

Aurelius’ quote takes the idea of self-reflection beyond the easy to find reflections of why we should be nice while driving on the freeway, and extends it to areas far beyond. He argues that we should strive to be cognizant of the negative aspects of our life so that we can change them. When we allow our shortcomings to exist, we allow ourselves to be bad people, or at least not the best version of ourselves.  Recognizing when we have an opportunity to do bad, and understanding how our bad actions are diminishing, even if they don’t harm others, can help us grow to be more aligned with the views that we hold or wish to hold about ourselves.